Long-standing Charlottetown restaurants offer advice to startups


'Most importantly you have to understand cash flow'

Dylan Zhao quietly opened his new restaurant, Eat and Enjoy Restaurant and Convenience, on Prince Street in Charlottetown just a few weeks ago, and he's already seen a slow trickle of customers enjoying his unique offering — hot pot cuisine, in which food is cooked by customers at the table on an induction cooktop.

"It's very popular in China," Zhao tells me. He's a PNP immigrant from the city of Chengdu, where hot pot is very popular. He went to cooking school for two years to learn it. 

Zhao invested about half a million dollars on renovating the vintage building — previously Kosy Korner diner — and admits he didn't do much market research to determine whether there was an appetite for hot pot. He's confident it'll be successful, though.

"You know how many immigrants come from China, and P.E.I. does not have hot pot restaurant," he points out. "Everyone wants to try new things of different cultures." 

Zhao's is one of many new restaurants in Charlottetown — some have transformed former eateries, while others are brand new.

'Products are unique'

Just a few blocks over, La Sazón de Mexico is offering what owner Claudia Perez Vega calls the city's only authentic Mexican cuisine. 

The licensed practical nurse is not a chef, but operates a popular Mexican food booth at the local farmers market and caters from her house. This is her first time running her own restaurant. 

She believes she'll be successful "because my products are unique."

"I want to show what is the Mexican culture, what is the real Mexican food." 

"Somebody called me from Moncton already to open a franchise," Perez Vega says proudly. "And I just opened 20 days ago. Watch my spot!"

Zhao and Perez Vega are confident they won't be part of the industry's high casualty rate — Restaurants Canada says 70 per cent of restaurants in Canada close within five years. 

But they'll need a lot more than confidence, experts warn.

CBC asked owners at two of Charlottetown's longest-running restaurants, Cedar's Eatery (39 years) and The Claddagh Oyster House (35 years), to share their advice to stay in the restaurant business long-term. 

1. Don't expect a vacation

"It's been hard work and long hours," says Kim Dolan at the Claddagh Oyster House. 

In the beginning, she and her husband Liam used to work seven days a week for 12 hours or more each day, especially when they added the Olde Dublin Pub after a couple of years, then later took on part ownership of Peake's Quay. Now that their children are helping out with the business, and with about 50 staff, the Dolans still work every day but do take a vacation.  

Abdallah grew up working every job at Cedar's while his parents ran the restaurant, he said, and took over ownership in 2010. He hasn't taken a day off in three years — since his honeymoon to Cape Breton. 

You have to work extra-hard to fill seats Sundays through Thursdays, Abdallah says. Most people go out to eat on weekends but that income isn't enough to make a profit, he says. 

2. Keep an eye on costs

"You have to understand the basic costs of things and how to buy — you certainly have to know how to read a balance sheet," Dolan says. "Most importantly you have to understand cash flow." 

Be a savvy buyer when it comes to ingredients and supplies like silverware, Dolan adds. Compare prices and quality. 

While quality of purchases is important, Abdallah says he tries not to allow himself to be convinced to buy things he doesn't need.

3. Keep quality consistent

Abdallah says it's important to keep the quality of food, service and the appearance of your establishment consistent. 

"You have a plate put in front of you — I ask every staff member before it comes out of the kitchen, would they be happy paying $12 or $13 for that meal? I ask them that every day." 

4. Don't try to serve everything

"You have to do due diligence on your menu choices," Dolan advises. "You can't put out anything the kitchen, cooks and chefs can't handle. We think we can serve everything, and to do a good job of certain things you have to keep it a little bit small in the beginning." 

Start with menu items you can turn out well, quickly, and for a profit — then build on it. 

5. Treat your staff well

"We try to push the envelope every year to see what else we can offer our staff," says Abdallah, who has 22 staffers. For instance a few years ago, Cedar's began offering staff health insurance.   

"I don't ever stop training my staff — if the staff can't do it the business can't do it," he says. Even long-term staff need to build their skills. 

"You have to have a good relationship with your staff — that they know what quality you want to serve," Dolan says, noting servers are really salespeople. "You have to work right alongside them to build their confidence, and you'll have confidence if you walk out the door that they'll do the job." 

6. Treat your customers well

Many customers who drop by Cedars or the Olde Dublin Pub expect to see or have a chat with the owners. The Dolans consider Liam's cheery manner and Irish brogue one of their assets. 

"It's certainly helped us throughout all these years. People come year after year sometimes just in the door to have a beverage with him or say hi," Dolan says. "It's quite interesting actually that those things happen — people do expect to see him." She says now that their children have taken leading roles, their friends come in and expect to be greeted personally, too. 

"Put yourself in the customer's position," Abdallah advises. "Make sure everybody's happy."

7. Maintain good relationships with suppliers 

Her husband still does most of the purchasing for their restaurants, from liquor to meat, Dolan says, because he's known the suppliers for years — some of them have been selling as long as he's been buying. 

"That's important, to keep up that good rapport with salespeople and companies," she says. 

"It's important to make sure they understand what's important to you," adds Abdallah. "It's very tricky." 

8. Enjoy what you do

"We enjoy it and enjoy our customers — that's the biggest thing for us," Dolan says of why the hard work hasn't become a grind, adding the Dolans have no intention of retiring anytime soon.

Likewise, Abdallah believes he'll run Cedar's forever — he has a month-old son and says he's already thinking about handing the business down to him. He's enjoying trying to grow the family brand with new products like Maroun's Garlic Spread, launched last year. 

Despite a high number of restaurants per capita already, Dolan says she believes with tourism continuing to grow rapidly, there's room for more restaurants in Charlottetown.

"Our food tourism is growing ... so hopefully that can continue. I think people are interested in food and that's what's opening the doors."

Sara Fraser · Web Journalist · CBC News